Norman Baker resignation: 'I've always tried to do the unexpected'

A failure to act on the evidence of a drug policy report spurred Baker’s decision to resign

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Indy Politics

When Norman Baker closed a landmark Commons debate on drugs last week his final remark – “the genie is out of the bottle and it is not going back in” – had a secret personal significance.

They were to be his final words from the Commons dispatch box.

He had privately told Nick Clegg two months earlier that he wanted to step down from the Government after more than four years, including 12 months trying to get the Liberal Democrat voice heard in the Home Office.

His departure, just seven months ahead of the general election, will cause surprise across the political spectrum as Mr Baker is widely regarded by friends and foes alike as among the party’s most effective ministers.

“I have always attempted to do things people don’t expect. I think that’s a good thing in politics,” he told The Independent yesterday.

“I don’t regard ministerial office as the only worthwhile thing to do and I have never understood the mentality that says you have got to cling on as long as you can.”

A key factor in his decision has been the gruelling experience of working alongside a Home Secretary, Theresa May, who is renowned for her determination to be involved in every element of her brief as well as her reluctance to delegate.

Mr Baker, who included drugs in his policy portfolio as crime reduction minister, had initially intended to bow out following the publication of a Home Office report on drugs policies abroad.

It was repeatedly delayed – by Downing Street, according to Mr Baker – and was only produced last week as MPs staged their first Commons debate for 43 years on drugs legislation.

The report, which concluded that a punitive approach to drugs did not reduce levels of abuse, provided ammunition to supporters of reform. Although the Tory and Labour front benches remain hostile  to reviewing drugs  laws, almost every speaker called for a fresh approach to tackling addiction and putting the criminal gangs behind the drugs trade out of business.

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Mr Baker said: “At the end of the debate I felt it had been a surreal debate and was I somehow in a parallel universe, where the House of Commons was behaving differently to how I thought it was going to behave.

“I was hugely encouraged by spread of support for reform … across the House.”

For the outgoing minister, the wrangling over the timing of the publication was further proof that senior Tories were playing politics with contentious issues rather than being driven by the evidence.

As he suggested in his valedictory speech from the front bench, he believes he is quitting at a “turning-point” for discussion of drugs policy in Britain.

He said: “I think the facts by and large support reform in certain areas and dare I say support the approach the Liberal Democrats have taken as opposed to the approach the Conservatives have taken.

“People are entitled to different views on these things, but to have this kind of mindless wall of rhetoric that says everything is hunky dory and we don’t need to do anything seems to me to be not serving the public very well.”

Mr Baker said he was “very attracted” to decriminalising possession of drugs and treating it as a health issue by encouraging users to discuss their habit with clinicians and lawyers.

He also favours wider use of medicinal cannabis as part of a “proper NHS process where it is prescribed under clinical conditions just as opiates are in hospital” as well as extending pilot schemes in which patients are given injections of pure heroin under medical supervision in treatment for dependency.

Mr Baker said he now intended to spend more time in his constituency, with his family and speaking out on subjects outside his Home Office portfolio. As a part-time singer in a rock band, he also plans to indulge his musical ambitions.

He is not about to prove a thorn in Mr Clegg’s side as he is a strong supporter of the decision to go into coalition and more optimistic than many of his colleagues about the party’s election prospects.

“I find that Conservative voters – not the hardline headbanger type, but the normal Conservative voters – actually like the Liberal Democrats in government.

“They think we have acted as an influence to stop extreme policies,” he said.

“I think we will get credit for it. I think the polls continually underestimate our support and as the Labour Party veers off to the left to its comfort zone and the Tory party engages in a hopeless and pointless challenge to run after Ukip to the right, there’s this huge space opening up in the middle for where I think the majority of the public are.

“No one is filling that space apart from the Liberal Democrats and I think as  we go towards the election that will become more and more apparent. And that puts us potentially in a good  position despite what the polls say.”

Baker's predecessors: Lib Dems in the Home Office

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Lynne Featherstone  (Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for  Women and Equalities,  2010-12)

Can claim credit for helping to press the case for same-sex marriage and launched moves to boost female  under-representation in the workplace. But she found herself sidelined in a junior role in the department, with her lack of visibility exacerbated by the fact that Theresa May also had  responsibility for women’s and equalities issues.

Moved sideways to the Department for International Development.

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Jeremy Browne (minister for crime prevention, 2012-13)

Arrived in the Home Office following praise for his two-year spell as a Foreign Office minister. He was given a more senior role than his predecessor with the brief of raising the Lib Dem profile in the department. But he struggled to fight his corner, and suffered the embarrassment of being unaware of the Tories’ notorious “go home” vans, which toured areas with high migrant populations.

Was sacked last year and has just announced he will not stand for re-election.

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